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Did BIO 2001, the world's largest annual biotechnology convention, live up to its advance billing? Joseph D. Panetta sure thinks so. Panetta is president and CEO of BIOCOM, an association for San Diego's rapidly growing biotech, medical device, and bio-agriculture industries. Many observers expected the convention to arouse passionate protests among groups opposed to bioengineering, but hardly any sparks were ignited (see BW Online, 6/27/01, "At BIO 2001, It's Scientists 1, Protesters 0"). BusinessWeek Los Angeles Correspondent Arlene Weintraub caught up with Panetta on the conference's final day, June 27. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: What was the highlight of the convention in your opinion?
A: I was surprised in listening to the presentations that we're much further along that I thought we were in many disease categories, especially infectious disease. For example, there are many companies working on the common cold. They're far along in their efforts to actually attack the rapidly changing viruses that cause the common cold.
Q: How important will Southern California be in the upcoming biotech boom?
A: We just completed a census that shows there are 75 drugs poised to hit the market within one to three years [being developed] just out of San Diego. San Diego is particularly strong in bioinformatics -- bringing science and technology together to more quickly understand the function of individual genes, and to develop tools to store the information, distribute it, and apply it to the development of new drugs.
Q: What accounts for the emergence of San Diego as such a strong biotech center?
A: First, there's the strong research base. Institutes like Scripps and Salk have helped give rise to several companies doing research in areas such as cancer and neurological disease. The bioinformatics companies have emerged from the many other industries that have a strong presence in San Diego, including information technology and telecom. We see those industries beginning to converge.
Q: The city geared up to deal with many more protesters than actually showed up. Why do you suppose the protests were so tame?
A: I have to believe part of the reason is that we're doing a good job communicating the benefits of biotechnology. But we need to do an even better job of communicating that. As technology continues to advance, we cannot become complacent about sharing that information. This isn't about debate. It's about sharing information.